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The Psychology of Goal Setting

When you look at goal setting from a psychological perspective, you can see how powerful the practice really is. Scientists have studied its effect on the human brain and discovered goals fuel motivation, performance, and personal fulfillment.

Dr. Edwin Locke summarized the benefits of goal setting in a 1968 article that is still referenced to this day. He found that explicit goals trigger motivation which in turn triggers performance. When hard work pays off and a goal is met, we feel a sense of satisfaction—or, more specifically, a rush of dopamine released by the brain’s reward system. We want to experience that feeling again so we set our sights on the next goal and the cycle restarts.

A few years later another psychologist named Dr. Gary Latham further built on Locke’s findings. The two teamed up to publish a groundbreaking book in 1990 titled A Theory of Goal Setting and Task Performance—outlining the five principles of successful goal setting. In this guide, we go through each principle while also providing additional details on how you can set effective goals for employees.